Road Test: 2009 Acura TL SH-AWD
By Douglas Kott of Road & Track
In today's luxury sports-sedan market, it's all about reinventing yourself. Cautious evolution works well for some segments (think VW Rabbit/Golf, or a certain rear-engine sports car built in Zuffenhausen), but a fresh face among pageant contestants including the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G37 and Cadillac CTS is bound to breathe new life into sagging sales charts.
And the new TL's face is fresh all right, but that big, honkin' proboscis — Acura calls it the Power Plenum grille — is a little tough to get past. Even the division's spokespeople admit to being taken aback on first viewing, but the rest of the shape is solid and powerful, a wide-stance look with broad lower panels culminating in crisp edges, and a dramatic rear boat-tail treatment set off with brightwork framing the rear window and lower trunklid. It's evocative of Cadillac's Art and Science treatment yet with a distinctly Japanese twist, and a significant departure from the quasi-Alfa 159 styling that characterized the previous TL. People on the street do react to it, some even going out of their way to pay a compliment.
And it's also bigger, no surprise with the public's desire for roomier vehicles and the never-ending roster of government-mandated requirements that tend to add bulk. Still, despite a 6.0-in. increase in overall length and a 1.4-in. bump in wheelbase, the new front-drive TL weighs in only about 80 lb. more (at 3708 lb.) than its previous self, thanks in part to an aluminum hood, bumper beams, front subframe and steering-column beam. Our test car, however, came in at a somewhat Rubenesque 3955 lb., due largely to its Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. This SH-AWD system is at once the TL's biggest technological trump card and its most controversial feature.
Similar in concept to the Honda Prelude SH's Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS) that we first saw in 1997 (albeit in front-drive form), SH-AWD normally apportions torque front/rear in a 90/10 split. Drive aggressively, and up to 70 percent of torque can be sent rearward; and of that percentage, up to 100 percent can be sent to either rear wheel via an ingenious pair of magnetically controlled clutch packs and planetary gearsets, based on various sensors taking cues from steering, throttle, road speed and body motion.
The upshot? Handling behavior that seems to defy physics and intuition, and gives a whole new — and positive — meaning to torque steer. Ever ridden a Jet Ski? With steering via vectored thrust from a nozzle, it turns only under power. Close the throttle and the handlebars are as useless as a week-old newspaper. With SH-AWD on a typical cloverleaf transition, you'd enter the corner, pick up a slight push, then — counter to every instinct in your body — apply more throttle to tighten your cornering line through the system's directing more torque toward that outside rear wheel. An acquired taste for sure, and something of a nonlinear see-saw action when you make that transition from under- to oversteer, and back again when you come off the throttle. Peruse our data panel and you'll see the TL turns in some great handling numbers...0.91g and a slalom sortie of 67.4 mph, but how much of that is attributable to the SH-AWD and how much to our test TL's summer tires — sticky Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s, size 245/40ZR-19 — is anyone's guess.
Truth is, you have to drive the TL quite aggressively on the street to even feel the SH-AWD working. Gas it hard out of a driveway in 1st gear, turning 90 degrees, and you'll feel the yaw in a pretty pronounced way. But at sub-intervention levels, the TL is quite satisfying, with quick and decisive turn-in and ride quality that's firm without being jiggle-your-guts-out harsh...here's a shout-out to the chassis guys who specified so-called "blow-off" shock valving to minimize the effect of pothole encounters, etc. Brakes, with functional cooling ducts up front, provide reassuring stopping power with little wasted pedal motion. And electrically assisted steering is among the best of its ilk, returning lots of road-surface information via a quick-ratio rack, through a very thick-rimmed 3-spoke wheel.
Powertrain-wise, the TL SH-AWD comes just one way, with a 305-bhp VTEC-augmented 3.7-liter V-6 coupled to a 5-speed automatic transmission with sequential-shift capability via steering-wheel paddles. The most powerful Acura engine ever, the 3.7 pulls hard and evenly, lower-pitched off idle and swelling to a cleaner, more urgent sound near the 6700-rpm redline. It accelerates the TL to reasonably quick times, but at 6.3 seconds to 60 and 14.8 sec. at 96.7 mph through the quarter mile, it's considerably off the pace of a key competitor, the BMW 335i, which generates corresponding numbers of 5.0 and 13.5 at 104.5. Even the front-drive version of the new TL pips the SH-AWD flagship in acceleration by a tenth in each contest, despite a slightly taller final-drive ratio and 25 less bhp from a smaller 3.5-liter V-6. The front-drive TL's 263-lb.-lighter curb weight evens the score with Father Physics.
Where competitors can't match the TL is in pure razzle-dazzle when it comes to interior styling and available features. Aggressively bolstered leather-clad seats, a dual-cockpit theme to the dash and boldly shrouded backlit gauges set the tone. Cool bluish-white LED lighting illuminates key groups of controls, the console and footwells. And our test car's Technology Package offers a heady array of features, from a ridiculously great-sounding 440-watt sound system which — of course! — includes a built-in 12.7-gig hard drive, XM satellite radio and DVD-Audio capability, to keyless entry with push-to-start, a higher grade of leather, and undentable trim pieces that are made using the Physical Vapor Deposition process where a thin layer of metal is deposited over plastic.
The real pearl, however, is the 8-in. high-definition screen for the navigation system that, of course, has real-time traffic and real-time weather Doppler overlays. Do you have a favorite picture of your pet, spouse or child? You can put it up on the screen, like computer wallpaper. The functions and features are too vast to list here; let's just say the Tech Package is an electronic tinkerer's paradise, a silicon-chip Mother Lode that will require some quality time with the owner's manual to master all the nuances. The joystick/knob controller dominating the center stack isn't among the most intuitive we've used, which adds to the challenge.
There are a few concessions to sportiness over utility that should be pointed out. For instance, the lift-over height for the trunk is considerable, the load floor isn't flat and the rear seat doesn't fold down (there is a ski pass-through), but the trunk volume is still pretty generous. But key cabin dimensions have grown incrementally, and buyers attracted to the TL's other considerable assets will no doubt overlook the shortcomings.
So the makeover is complete, and the TL appears to have carved out a niche unto itself, a proprietary blend of cutting-edge high tech, drivetrain innovation and performance. Just how well that ratio plays out will be decided by the ultimate authority: the sports-sedan buyer.